‘Dr. Phil’ Show Accused of Toxic Workplace Conditions, Manipulating Guests and Racism

Dr. Phil McGraw and executive producer Carla Pennington deny all accusations

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The “Dr. Phil” talk show has again been accused of fostering a “toxic” workplace environment, this time in a lengthy article published Thursday by BuzzFeed News. A dozen current or former employees accused top producers of abusive behavior toward staff, fostering racist stereotypes both onscreen and off, and unethical treatment of guests — including a charge that one employee was instructed to tell a guest not to take prescription medication before going on air “because they wanted her to look unstable and quote-unquote, ‘crazy.’”

Phil McGraw denied the accusations through his attorney, H. Patrick Morris. Executive producer Carla Pennington, who was also accused of unprofessional behavior along with other senior-level producers, also denied the accusations through an attorney, Bryan J. Freedman.

“It’s a clickbait story because Dr. Phil sells tickets,” Morris said in a statement provided to TheWrap. “I happen to know BuzzFeed was offered dozens of current and former staff to talk to but when BuzzFeed started hearing the truth, which would ruin their salacious narrative, they declined. Dr. Phil focuses on content for the program and doesn’t get involved in staff relations, but the staff at the program in no way uses ethnic origin such as described.”

The BuzzFeed exposé paints an unseemly picture of the behind-the-scenes atmosphere on one of daytime TV’s biggest hits. While no former staffer told BuzzFeed that they witnessed McGraw directly engaging in toxic behavior, two current and 10 former employees there said it was “common to be screamed at and berated by executive producer Carla Pennington and other senior-level staffers.”

Seven unnamed staffers told BuzzFeed they “were encouraged to perpetuate racist stereotypes onscreen” and two said they experienced racism behind the scenes.

“Playing the race card is the most absurd, ridiculous attention-grab by this writer without one shred of evidence,” Morris said.

Others described a “war zone” atmosphere, particularly for junior staffers who said they were publicly berated as “idiots” and “retards” over small offenses — and fearful of reporting abusive behavior to the human resources department for fear of retaliation and firing.

A spokesperson for ViacomCBS said “creating safe and inclusive working environments is a top priority at ViacomCBS” in a statement provided to TheWrap. “We provide multiple avenues through which employees can report complaints to the company both on the record and anonymously,” the spokesperson said. “We encourage any employee who believes that they or others within the company have been treated unfairly to report it without a fear of retaliation. We take seriously all such reports.”

The former staffers also accused the show’s top producers of “unethical” treatment of guests, misleading them in order to get them to commit to appearing and then manipulating their stories to create better televised stories.

Among the more shocking accusations, one former employee said they were told to dissuade a guest from taking her prescription medicine before going on air.

“We were specifically instructed, ‘Make sure that she doesn’t take her medication before she goes onstage,’ because they wanted her to look unstable and quote-unquote, ‘crazy,’ for lack of a better term,” the unnamed employee told BuzzFeed. “She did take the medication because no one got there in time and I remember thinking, ‘My God, I don’t want to be the one to tell them or dissuade them from that.’ And that’s all for the sake of TV. Obviously this girl should be on her medication and that’s what we’re trying to get her help for, but for the sake of TV they wanted her to look off the rails.”

Some also said they were discouraged from booking nonwhite guests from the show, and encouraged to be manipulative to convince people to go on air. “We walk this really weird tightrope of booking people whose stories are just juicy enough for TV without being straight-up illegal, but we also kind of blur the lines on what we choose to share in the story to make it palatable for network television,” one ex-staffer told BuzzFeed. “It feels very ethically inappropriate.”

“This story is a work of fiction,” Freedman told BuzzFeed. “BuzzFeed’s singular focus of creating a potentially viral story came at the expense of truth and facts. BuzzFeed spent months crafting a desired narrative and curating unnamed sources to anonymously support their manufactured story.”

McGraw and show producer Peteski Productions, have faced allegations of wrongdoing in the past. In 2016, a former employee sued McGraw and accused him of locking her and other staffers in a room during an investigation by producers into a leak to the media. McGraw later filed a countersuit; both cases were settled in 2018. Several guests have also accused producers of giving them access to drugs and alcohol before going on air — which the show’s producers have strongly denied.

A spokesperson for “Dr. Phil” also denied the accusations in a statement.

“Buzzfeed’s ‘click-bait story’ containing verifiably and objectively false characterizations and reporting of the publicly available contradictory results of these legal cases [including dismissal with prejudice due to a lack of merit, not even being a party and other factual errors] raises significant doubts about the credibility of the other unsubstantiated, anonymous claims relating to the show and its staff, which are not true,” the “Dr. Phil spokesperson said. “Buzzfeed has been provided with dozens and dozens of attributed statements of fact, from current and past staff. Verifiable data contradicting the entire premise of their ‘anonymously attributed,’ sensationalized and baseless article. 

“‘Dr. Phil’ and our hard-working, diverse team of more than 200 proud staff, many of whom have been here for two decades, have sincerely and respectfully worked with thousands of appreciative guests,” the statement from “Dr. Phil” continued. “From the beginning, show executives have strived to create a collaborative, safe, and open environment for Dr. Phil McGraw and all staff and guests. We are grateful for the overwhelming number of proud, dedicated colleagues who have helped achieve our sustained success through 20 seasons of the program with many more to come.”